93-year-old father of Canadian climate science reflects on the most consequential events of his career

February 2nd 2022
Climate scientist Jim Bruce, left, shakes hands with secretary-general of the WMO G.O.P. Obasi in 1985. Photo via Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society

In the summer of 1988, a heat wave baked Toronto as 300 international scientists and policymakers gathered to discuss a worrisome observation — the growing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would warm the planet and choke life on Earth if left unchecked.

One of the most enduring quotes to date of the climate change era is cradled in a statement drafted for the end of that conference.

“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war,” it reads.

One of the hands that wrote the now famous quote was veteran climate scientist Jim Bruce, who at the time was serving as the acting deputy secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Having retired from Environment Canada in 1985, he was continuing his work with one of the first expert bodies to study climate change.

Now 93, Bruce is reflecting on a career packed with lessons for the era of climate change. From how to build international agreements that work, to protecting our communities from floods, Canada’s National Observer sat down with Bruce to hear what it will take to pull human society out of its death spiral.

Jim Bruce, pictured in his Ottawa home. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada's National Observer

Sometimes, 1988 is held up as a turning point for the planet. It was the year the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million, the threshold considered unsafe for human life. The Toronto conference that year called on industrialized countries to reduce emissions 20 per cent by 2005, marking the first time a target was set to help guide countries to a climate-safe future. It was also the year the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), now the world’s leading scientific body on the issue. At the apex of his career, Bruce was involved in just about all of it.

Bruce’s friends and colleagues have described him as “humble” and “unassuming,” but are quick to note his impact has been enormous. In the fields of hydrology and meteorology, for instance, Bruce is seen as “one of the fathers of both fields in Canada,” said Canada Research Chair in water resources and climate change John Pomeroy.

Similarly, former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who first met Bruce in Ottawa in the 1980s, called him one of the “biggest water brains you could find anywhere on the planet” whose “brilliance” served the government well.

In fact, in recognition of being at the forefront of the country’s understanding of climate change, Bruce was awarded an Order of Canada in 1997.

Pomeroy said beneath Bruce’s “warm, welcoming and friendly” demeanour was a determination to build programs that served Canadians — and ultimately, people all over the world — well.

“He approaches difficult issues without rancour, but there’s also a steel core in there,” Pomeroy said.

“Always that smiling presence, but always several steps ahead intellectually… A brilliant strategic thinker.”

First session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Geneva 1988, with Jim Bruce third from the left. Photo via IPCC

Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples of Bruce’s determination to build a better understanding of the changing climate came in the months following the Toronto conference in 1988.

Bruce remembers sitting in the basement of a Geneva convention centre that year to lead the development of what would become the IPCC. His signature can be seen on the founding documents of the leading United Nations climate research outfit, spelling out the organization's three working groups, studying the environmental science, its impacts, and the social and economic dimensions of climate change.

The IPCC provides detailed reports about the damage that has been done to the climate and what it means for our future to world governments. And in 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to raise the issue of climate change among the public. That year, with An Inconvenient Truth recently released, Al Gore was jointly awarded the prize.

Bruce’s work to help launch the IPCC earned him an invite to Oslo to be part of the delegation to accept the award.

“I was sleeping in bed, and there was a phone call. They said, `Do you want to come be part of the IPCC delegation?’” Bruce said.

He said he’d think about it, but it was his wife Ruth who encouraged him to go.

“I said, ‘What do you mean? We're going!” she says.

The two travelled to Oslo for the award ceremony. Bruce remembers sitting in the second row, behind Al and Tipper Gore, but the standout memory for him came on the way back to the hotel after receiving the award.

“A crowd had gathered outside chanting, ‘I-P-C-C, I-P-C-C,’ and I thought that only happened to hockey teams or football teams, but, no, there we were being chanted at,” he said. “They wouldn't quit until the … chair went out on the balcony and waved.”

Left: Nobel Peace Prize hanging on Bruce's wall. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada's National Observer | Right: Al Gore waving to a crowd in Oslo the night the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded. Photo via Nobel

Bruce called it “pretty remarkable” and a “good thing” that the IPCC’s findings have been so influential on improving the collective understanding of climate scientists, but conceded it hasn’t been as influential as he’d hoped.

“Now it hasn't been very successful in getting real action, in my view, but that's a political problem,” he added.

In many ways, the political dimension of climate change remains the biggest impediment to cutting emissions, given the science has been clear for decades, and many ways to address the problem already exist.

Bruce’s career, spanning from his early days forecasting weather to his experience at the forefront of international climate diplomacy, was devoted to finding solutions to current problems. It also reveals what has been lost over decades of government inaction.

When it rains, it pours

Only a few years into Bruce working as a meteorologist, the trajectory of his career was forever changed. It was the middle of October in 1954 when a major storm travelling north met a cold front moving east. Called hurricane Hazel, the storm dropped nearly a foot of rain on southern Ontario causing severe flooding on the Humber River, running through Toronto. It killed 80 people and caused more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of damages, in today’s dollars.

An important lesson, one Canada has largely forgotten, was that too many homes and buildings had been built on a flood plain. In particular, Raymore Drive was near a bend in the river, and when the water rose past the banks, about 40 per cent of the street was washed away, killing 35 people. That section was never redeveloped and today is Raymore Park, hinting at the second critical lesson: green space helps mitigate flood risks. In fact, much of the park spaces and wetlands that remain along the Humber River can be traced back to hurricane Hazel blunting development in these sensitive zones.

Raymore Drive, 1954. Photo via Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Environment Canada

Raymore Drive washed out (left) and flooding damage from hurricane Hazel (right). Photos via Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Environment Canada

Man surveys damage from hurricane Hazel. Photo via Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Environment Canada

As Hazel approached, Bruce was working with the Meteorological Service of Canada. He could forecast record rainfall, but the ability to forecast flooding didn’t yet exist. A hydrology expert, he was tasked with developing a flood forecasting system.

In Toronto, hurricane Hazel provided first-hand data, but that storm’s precipitation was extrapolated to other Ontario locations to predict how other rivers could flood. From there, solutions could be engineered to protect communities, including avoiding development in at-risk areas. Over the next two decades, Bruce refined the flood mapping and was tapped to develop a national flood damage reduction program.

The program got concrete results, for a time; dikes on the Lower Fraser in B.C. were built using funds from it. But management at Environment Canada scrapped the program after he retired.

“And the provinces, I guess, weren't willing to keep it up on their own, so the thing kind of fell apart,” Bruce said.

Ottawa was looking to save money, and didn’t believe they were constitutionally obligated to be involved in freshwater management, so it was an easier cut, Pomeroy said. But the result is “not very good,” he said.

Ottawa never developed a flood forecasting system for the country and failed to keep up with flood mapping as climate change progressed, Pomeroy said.

Now roughly 30 years later, the current Liberal government is promising to restore the agency with a new lick of paint, branding it as the Canada Water Agency.

The Green Party’s May said it “is all about trying to get remotely near what we had in the ’80s that was dismantled in the ’90s.”

“It blows my mind that a country with as many inland lakes and waters as Canada would decide to dismantle the scientific capacity to deal with it,” she said.

Pomeroy said as a country, we’re catching up on a quarter-century of neglect.

“It's akin to not paying your insurance company and letting your insurance lapse. You're OK for a while and then the problems come home to roost. And, of course, the problems are worse than anticipated because of climate change,” he said.

Flood damage in British Columbia, November 2021. Photo via Province of B.C.

That is precisely what happened in November when a weather system called an atmospheric river pummelled British Columbia and widespread flooding wreaked havoc on critical infrastructure and communities alike. Calgary’s 2013 devastating flood can similarly be traced back to inadequate flood mapping and preparation, Pomeroy said.

Montreal to Paris to Glasgow

Having high-level experience with international conferences and organizations has given Bruce a unique perspective into what works and what doesn’t. From the get-go, Bruce said he was doubtful the Paris Agreement could bring emissions down to the level scientists said was needed for a safe planet. “It was a rather unhappy compromise.

“I figure an unhappy compromise (means) you don't have a good basis for strong international action,” he said.

That’s also partly why COP26 in Glasgow failed to make much progress, he added.

“It was mostly politicians who were trying their best to make sure their country didn't commit to spending very much money.”

Even if Glasgow left Earth on a path to devastating global warming, humanity has solved existential threats before. Ultraviolet radiation piercing through the ozone layer would have killed a lot of life by now had the ozone not been restored. It took concerted action, but in a generation, the problem was identified, addressed, and solved. Juxtaposing international deals like the Paris Agreement designed to slash emissions with the Montreal Protocol that has successfully helped restore the ozone layer, helps show what’s possible.

Bruce called the thinning of the ozone a simpler problem to solve than climate change because it required phasing out certain harmful chemicals, rather than upending a global energy system built on fossil fuels. But by phasing out the global use of ozone-killing chemicals, the Montreal Protocol solved the problem. That has lessons for today’s effort to phase out fossil fuels.

To address global warming, he said what’s needed is a significant change to traditional western economic thinking by incorporating environmental concerns. That means ditching GDP as the leading economic metric in favour of something that takes into account natural resource depletion, clean air, water and soil, and the health of insects, animals, plants and forests. It also means fully applying the polluter pays principle.

“The polluter pays principle is the only way to make the industrial sector pay for their use of raw materials, including the atmosphere, so I think it should be an essential underpinning,” Bruce said.

how do we get the political will to implement the known solutions!? no idea resistance is futile? fertile? fantasy solution is armed counter insurgency against fossil coprs

Good that the Liberals are restoring the Water Agency, also a great idea to replace GDP with real, more relevant measures of environmental health, and describing the atmosphere as a "raw material" is brilliant.
This is a reminder of David Suzuki's idea of according "rights" to nature. As we watch all these idiots in trucks fomenting mindlesssly about THEIR rights, we get perspective.

Polluter pays. You make something crappy that can't be recycled and lands in a landfill almost instantly? You pay for that, by the rate it's emitted and by the gram. Same principle could be applied for CO2, plastic wrap, dixie cups and autos.



Yes. We're getting a taste of what we're in for if we capitulate to ideological irrationality......and let those too simple to comprehend the real significance of global warming, run us into silence. There are lots of good people who think only of their in group's situation.........what we need now are more global citizens and fewer globalized supply chains dependent on these big machines.

The planet should have rights....and some of us are going to have to give up a few of ours if we're going to get past this wall we're determined to run into.

Full lifecycle accounting is another method in this vein. Just as an audit by chartered accountants delves into the costs of maintenance, depreciation, replacement and so on, "external costs" like pollution should be included. GDP measures everything as a total or sum of all economic activity, and isn't particular whether it is value added manufacturing of microchips, the cleanup of toxic sites or laundering corrupt money into legit businesses.

In Alberta the environmental liabilities of cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells (not to mention the lakes of toxic waste at tar sands operations) are routinely ignored when pundits and politicos harp on the "largesse" Alberta has "sent" to Ottawa's equalization program with revenue from higher incomes due to oil extraction. Some commentators came up with a figure that exceeds $600 billion over a half century, or something similar. Of course, they need to deduct the potential $250-$500 billion cost of their unmet environmental liabilities first.

The cost of climate warming adaptation and mitigation will be borne by all Canadians, should policy makers come around to growing a spine. It's not up to major polluters like Alberta to pay for the clean electrification of the national economy, mainly because we are all guilty of participating in a consumerist economic model and did very little to slow the creep of near absolute dependency on fossil fuels, and were wilful ignorance of its effects with every flight and oil-burning car. This doesn't mean we can't change that, but we certainly can't blame one particular region or entity for our acceptance of relatively high lifestyles and failure to plan for efficacy and resilience. It was easy for industry and the politicians it has purchased to create that dependency because we love our consumer conveniences to this day.

However, there should be a thick, solid line drawn between funding adaptation / remediation measures and paying for someone else's damage. No way should the feds kick in for well cleanup or failed experiments in carbon capture and storage in the oil industry that it is portraying as a climate solution. As if. Instead, let's the feds to build a smart grid and develop a points-based reward system for cities that change their zoning, transportation and building permit structures to favour energy conservation and urban efficacy with the expectation the feds will fund extensive transit networks and offer a better array of long-term generous grants to convert households to electricity from gas, or design for solar.

Though the pandemic is still with us, that shouldn't stop the feds and provinces from planning.

"On 2022-02-12 5:59 a.m., McGill Office for Science and Society wrote a reply that supported stopping a pandemic quickly as a good thing, with no unintended consequences."
In my mind a comment was warranted due to the implications of an unintended consequence the world is now experiencing. One called for convenience "Climate Change". How is this happening? Very simple. Over protection of a species allows it to expand it's impact in "the scheme of things". It is one of the good intentions of our ethic to save lives, prolong life and inflate our population so now we are running out of room for all we want to do, not realizing we are confined to a finite planet with fixed limits.
Planet Earth can be characterized as a Space Ship that has a special facility to keep it's occupant species alive for a long time, until more space is reached to continue the expansive mode we seem to strive for. It can be called a Biosphere in which we as a species have seemed to have achieved dominance and innovative skills to manipulate the Biosphere to produce results to our liking.
Fortunately our Spaceship Earth is tethered by gravity to a good constant source of energy as radiation, the Sun. With no help from our species the Biosphere has worked out a circular mode of replacement through various stages of all manner of living organisms, including us. When the life span of individuals ends, their remains are rendered into ingredients that nourish new life. Those remains are vital to the success of the Biosphere's success in perpetuating species generation after generation. There is an equilibrium that must be maintained for this system to survive. Man is expert at disrupting this balance and now is in danger of killing it. We know much about all the parts and how to manipulate all of them, but have difficulty in striking and keeping the balance. That balance is now seen to be lost , hence Climate Change issues.
When ever an expert in any field sounds off about the success achieved in that field, maybe they should also note the unintended consequences plainly indicated, if their success is carried too far.
Books have been published that record the findings of experts in many fields that are a record of previous advanced civilizations of our species. One of note is Collapse. Those have all ended in collapse due to a failure to find a way to continue, with the space and resources they were able to access. Our advanced societies today seem to be close to their apexes also, still trying to advance by linear expansion in all they promote.
I find only one outfit, Global Footprint Network that is publishing data on our use of the Biosphere. It describes the findings in Ecological Footprint units, and publish a marker day each year that indicates when our use of the Biosphere has exceeded what was estimated to be the sustainable yield of it, called the Overshoot day. That day has been trending steadily toward the beginning of the year. Starting in 1990 it was on Oct.11. Each subsequent year that date kept creeping earlier until in 2019 it was on July 29. The next year, 2020 the trend reversed and fell back to Aug. 22. The data shows a correlation with the impact of the present pandemic on human activity. What will the data show the Overshoot day to be for 2021?
Perhaps the UN IPCC and COP organizations will come up with a plan that shows recognition of what seems factual about the Blue Planet space ship we inhabit, and the actual dynamics of what we humans are up to, and what alternatives are still available if we collectively wish for our species survival. The knowledge and skills already exist to shift to a circular type culture, except for how to instill the goal, understanding and will to survive as a species until an external force has the planet join Mars as sterile of life as we know it
Thanks for the opportunity to comment, and comment back would be appreciated..
Charles H. Jefferson McGill Agr 1947
110 Central Park Dr.
Ottawa, ON. K2C 4G3